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Essay: The level playing field

April 27, 2012 | 4:23 p.m. CST

I believe all seniors should be recruited into employment in an NFL Draft-like fashion every spring, and I’m a little bitter that we’re not. Put on a hat, smile for the camera, buy a diamond-encrusted watch to celebrate — that sort of thing. This sentiment was completely reinforced at a run-down table in the back of a Columbia bar one Friday in March when my good friend Laura and I decided to meet up with a few old friends. And by old friends, I mean Mizzou football players.

“It went well, hoping to hear back from some people in Chicago, so that would be exciting,” said one of the four of us gathered around a table. He alternated nods with slow sips of his Jack and Coke. His words were familiar to all of us — dripping with same overly confident tone every second semester senior uses. His friend was quick to agree.

“Yeah, mine went well too. A few people seemed really interested, so it should be good ...” he trailed off.

Same tone. It’s the college senior equivalent of clicking your heels together, squeezing your eyes shut and earnestly saying, “There’s no place like home.” I will be employed, I will be employed, I will be employed. For the past few months, we’ve all experienced many of the same useless reactions to such updates. Friends, relatives and other such “grown-ups” ask about our professional plans. Then they respond by saying, “What a tough industry,” with a sharp exhale and a worried head shake as if we had told them we wanted to be a crash-test dummy. Would anyone really be happier if we spent thousands on an education to shoot for a non-tough industry? Hm …

One of the guys anticipated that response, preemptively saying, “I know it’s going to be tough.”

“But so exciting,” I finished, trying to signal that he was among allies. Of course he saw that coming. That’s what he does — anticipates the move you’re about to make and stops it. That’s what he’s done for four years as a defensive star of Mizzou’s football team.

Don’t get me wrong, he was right. His industry is one of the toughest. The guys weren’t recapping the forced conversation and sweaty handshakes of a career fair or chatting about nervously sending their resumes to friends of friends of friends like Laura and I were. They were talking about NFL Pro Day.

During the conversation, they casually mentioned meeting various NFL scouts. One of them showed me the business card of the scout from my city — navy, orange and glossy. That reminds me, I should get some of these made, I thought absentmindedly as I held the card. As I handed it back, I was struck by the fact that he would never need a small cardboard calling card. His contact information can be summed up with the two digits and the seven letters sewn onto the back of his jersey. Lucky.

“Yeah, I’m supposed to hear from him sometime next week,” he added about one of the scouts.

On the cusp of graduation, all four of us share the lingering worst-case-scenario nightmare that we might shortly come to find out that our last four years — the ones spent on the football field or in the journalism school, in the weight room and the library — were a waste of time and that we should have been smarter, we should have been doing something else. Although I’m certain that four years in the weight room would’ve done me no good at all. So we maintain an optimistic confidence in our choices and pray that someone will take a chance on us.

We started talking about Chicago weather and hunting for post-grad roommates, but were cut short when a few football-loving bar patrons came up to ask the guys if the stats they had reportedly put up on Pro Day were true (as if it’s useful for ESPN to lie about 40-yard dash times, come on guys). Our footballer friends both nodded sheepishly, profusely thanked them, and gave out handshakes — the currency of the soon-to-be rich and famous.

Laura and I sat there, completely blown off by these strangers. In our moment of relative invisibility, I suddenly felt that somehow these two had it easier than us.

Okay — I was and am aware of the ridiculousness of this thought. I know that many boys and men daydream about being in the NFL. In fact, it’ll probably take three rounds in the draft before most 20-somethings realize that they might not go pro this year. I get it. It’s the impossible dream.

Still, I allowed myself to wallow in pathetic, unnecessary self-pity long enough to come up with a few reasons why I wish my future industry of employment were a lot more like the National Football League. My jealousy was not aimed at the traditionally easy targets of professional sports; the fame, the multi-million dollar deals, the nationally televised games or the jerseys with last names proudly stitched on the back. Nope, it was the hiring process I was after. These two seemed much closer to the reality of their impossible dreams than I was to mine.

Our friends were being pursued by an industry that literally needs youth. It cannot survive on experience and wisdom of veteran players and needs to fill the gap with motivated and eager young men. Let’s face it: You need to be bright-eyed, fresh-faced and downright enthusiastic. So what about me? I’m young and eager and willing to be metaphorically battered on my long climb to the top. Love me. Hire me!

It’s not hard to be jealous. In other industries, many postgraduates will ride the bench of unemployment. For them, there was no booming ESPN voice broadcasted into the homes of millions saying things like, “She’s made a few mistakes, but she’s young and very talented. These are issues that work themselves out in time — definitely one to watch.” This is unfortunate. My educational career could have been entertaining for a national audience.

Throughout the night, the guys toyed with the notion that fame and its obvious strangeness to them. They would joke with each other by calling out to a group of young women and saying, “Don’t you know who this is?” while pointing to the other one and listing out his football stats, laughing and enjoying his short-lived anonymity.

The two would pose for Facebook (or maybe Instagram?) pictures and shake hands, and in these moments, I was reminded of something I already knew: They’re all tough industries.

Like us, the two young men were in limbo. The glory days of college ball were over for them, but the next step was uncertain. No contracts were written up, no jerseys were being manufactured with their names, and they weren’t wildly successful quite yet. But hey, neither were we. At the end of the day, the emotions and the processes are the same. Teams and companies are choosing their elite rosters from an impossibly large pool. The difference is that most of us just don’t go through that on national television. Maybe that part is a blessing — I’m an ugly crier.

And yet there we all were; drinking the same $2 drink specials, hoping somebody would call us back the next week. Sure, any day now, their first jobs might be printed on the front page of the sports section and dropped on the driveways of every home in America. But who knows — maybe I’ll be the one writing that story.

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